The very first game most babies play is “Peek-A-Boo.” Even before they can walk —when they can do little more than see a foot or two ahead— babies play this game for hours.
Peek-A-Boo is all about going away and coming back. For a moment, a baby’s eyes are covered; and, for them, since they can’t walk, crawl, or even scoot about, this act makes it seem for all the world like everything is gone. They are gone. You are gone. The world is gone.
Then, a few blessed seconds later, eyes are uncovered, and everything is back. And the baby, and the parent, both break out in a wide-eyed smile.
Again, babies can play this game for hours.
As she grew, the game of Peek-A-Boo changed for Maria and me. But it was a really the same game. A few months later, Maria could walk now. Toddle, really. She’d toddle herself out of the room where was sitting.
Not far. Just around the corner. Just out of sight. But for a toddler, that’s as far as your legs can take you. And, as with Peek-A-Boo, it’s as if the whole world has gone away, even if you’re just a few feet outside the doorway to the next room.
She’d wait there for a few moments, and walk back in the room.
“Boo!” she’d say. And then she’d laugh and laugh. And when she was done laughing, she’d do the same thing again.
It was while we were playing this little game one day —while she was toddling herself out of the room— that it struck me how this little game was a metaphor for being a parent…for being a child.
In an instant, one ordinary afternoon, as I watched her little diapered body waddle out of view, I realized I was watching a waltz that she and I would dance for the rest of our lives.
She would, as she grew, waddle away in increasingly larger circles. And she’d come running back too. But as Daddy, I also knew I should make no mistake about it. The circles would get wider and wider. The distances would get longer and longer.
In a sense, then, all these games get us ready for separation. For adulthood. They don’t just get children ready for it. If we are wise parents, they get us ready for it too.
So it is that a few years later, I remember sitting on the front porch, watching Maria (now about four) stand barefoot in the front yard, and peer down the street at neighbor-kids who were playing together. She’d look back at me, to see if she had permission to go further.
Then, she’d wander down the block, and for the first time in my memory, wander away to play with friends. And, again, I knew the game was continuing. She came running back, moments later, perhaps to just be sure I was still there. I was. And reassured, she ran back down the block for a longer period, to play.
The game continued…
There were sleepovers with friends. There were overnight camps and church retreats. There was our amazing “Y Princess Tribe,” where a group of Fathers and Daughters all went on weekend campouts together…and where, in the relative-safety of that camp, we’d let the girls wander off for hours to explore creeks, and lakes and woods.
In all these things, the circle of “going away, and coming back” got wider and longer.
This past summer was the biggest of them all. Maria spent almost the entire summer gone. She was a camp counselor at Camp Grady Spruce. She went on a week-long camping trip to Colorado.
She’d travel home, on weekends, for a few hours to do laundry and sleep..before driving back out to camp Sunday afternoon.
The widest circle yet. The same game.
Today is “The Divine Miss M’s” eighteenth birthday. Like every parent you’ve ever known, I find myself scratching my head, wondering where the time has gone. And I’m not just remembering how that little loaf of bread we welcomed 18-years-ago today has grown, I’m also remembering how we’ve been playing Peek-A-Boo every day since.
And I know what’s coming next. College. The going-aways get longer, and the coming-backs get shorter.
And this is as it should be.
Because really, this is not just the primary game of a parent/child. This is the primary game of LIFE.
Seen from a certain point of view, life is all about learning to go away, and to come back. To say “hello.” To say “goodbye.” To say “hello again.” And to do it so many times, in so many settings, until it simply becomes the rhythm of life itself.
We make friends. We lose them. We have careers. They change. We grow. We change. We set off on epic journeys of discovery and adventure; sometimes across the world, and sometimes in our own backyards.
I think of Kerrville. That beautiful little community I’m a part of every Spring. We come back and gather. We celebrate. We go away again. We dance with the rhythm of each other’s lives and music for a short time every year. We come together. We go away. We come back again.
I think of Church, every Sunday. We walk in the doors. We come together. We get sent back out to be God’s people in the world. We say hello to newborns. We say goodbye to saints who die. All the while, in every season that passes, we engage this same rhythm of Hello-Goodbye-Hello.
Little, daily goodbyes prepare us for the big ones. Even the ultimate ones. We lost Dennise’s mother last year. We’re watching the rest of our parents deal with physical issues too. Hell, every day, Dennise and me wake up with creaky bones and pains that weren’t there the day before.
Creaky bones, sore muscles, these are also reminders of more ultimate goodbyes. Death is a kind of final goodbye.
But even then, the movement of life is not just from “hello” to “goodbye.”
I believe it’s always “Hello-Goodbye-Hello.”
In theological terms, the movement of life is not “life into death,” But life into life.
“From life to death, to live everlasting” as we say.
Nothing, and no one, is ever lost forever.
Even those who physically die continue to play “Peek-A-Boo” with us. They pop back up in our dreams, our mannerisms, our speech and our actions. We carry them in our hearts and souls for the rest of our lives, long after we have said what we assumed were our “goodbyes.”
So, then, one of the goals of life is learning to trust the rhythm. When the goodbyes are abrupt, deep and sudden, our trust in the rhythm can be deeply challenged. We can lose our trust in the rhythm for a season. But, through a great deal of grace, we often see it come back.
Life is about joy and loss. Love and pain. Life is about coming and going. Life is about Hello-Goodbye-Hello.
And I’m reminded profoundly about all of this, on my daughter’s eighteenth birthday.
At that very moment Maria was born, I had a profound experience. Lots of parents talk about this. I think the moment of birth is especially profound for Fathers because, unlike Mothers, we haven’t physically been living with the baby for nine months.
But, as I’ve described that moment ever since, it was as if whole new rooms of my heart opened up. In a single moment. Boom. That moment was a”Hello” to much bigger heart than I even realized was there. It was beautiful and profound. And, when I’m paying attention to life, I still feel it every time I see her face.
I wrote a song about it that was on my first CD. I’ve come to judge the recording harshly (especially my singing on the track).
“As i walk through new parts
Of this well-traveled heart,
I wonder: Where did these rooms come from?”
But I realized that in the final verse, the song contains the rhythm of “Hello-Goodbye-Hello”as well:
“When this span of life has ended,
And when our moments are no more,
We’ll meet again in what comes after,
Standing outside a mansions door.”
Happy Birthday, Maria.
I love you with all my heart. I’m so proud of the young woman you are becoming.
Where ever life leads you next, I look forward to the ways we will continue our eighteen-year dance of “Hello-Goodbye-Hello” forever.